Aliens: Colonial Marines
Full disclosure: Aliens may be my favourite movie of all time.
It's five-star entertainment with heart. The template for every squad-based movie ever since and the blueprint for etching out compelling characters with the minimum of screen time. One of only a handful of flicks that's withstood repeated viewings over the past two decades.
It's the flick that my now-girlfriend and I first bonded over, firing one liners to each other over text message. I break out a YouTube clip of Apone's "another beautiful day" speech most mornings to get me ready for the day, and utter Hudson's "how do I get out of this chicken-shit outfit" as a rhetorical when the crunch of deadline gets too much. If ever I retire and open a pub, the decor's going to be part Sulaco, part Hadley's Hope. Alien Queen head propped up behind the bar. I'm not telling you the name (copyright people!), but it's a zinger.
It is, to paraphrase, a complete badass of a film.
So, the critical eye's somewhat sharper on this particular title, a tie-in by Gearbox Software and set some weeks after the events of Aliens. We, and they, are talking direct sequel. That's some big marine boots to fill, and takes some big balls to make that claim.
The game's been officially in production for six years now, gestation an ice age compared to the xenomorph's that is the title's star. Reasons for that length are but rumour, facts only what official statements offer. What we do know is that the core of the game's remained: a platoon of marines arriving at LV-426 on a search and rescue mission for their comrades-in-arms.
That's the arc for single player campaign. It'll be joined by a contingent of multiplayer modes using the same locales and setups.
At an All-European event in London, we're privy to four pieces of gameplay. A five minute walkthrough of the campaign, some third of the way through the game, during a presentation hosted by Sega and Gearbox.
Then our own ten minutes hands-on, set much earlier in the story. One ten minute match of Marines Vs Aliens multiplayer Extermination mode (humans taking out capture points, Xenos defending) with five minutes per side. Then two ten minute matches of Escape mode (which could be retitled 'Run Marine, Run') under the same time and rule restraints.
It takes an age to settle into the rhythm of online multiplayer modes, and there's rightly an argument to holding off on pronouncements proper until weeks, even months have been lost on digital battlefields. With that in mind, and with the time count today not even at thirty minutes, we're just about working which way's up by session's end.
The metaphor's apt given the Alien's wall-crawling abilities. Xeno control yanks the camera to the third-person, trigger holds letting you skitter your chosen creature across any surface, along ceilings. Picking an indirect route towards Marines is essential to get within grabbing or spitting distance (the game looking to the wider alien fiction for the trio of design and class inspirations) and avoiding the acid reflux caused by a clip emptying into your face prematurely.
There's definitely technique to mastering the creatures. This initial adjustment period will likely last much longer than the short time we're given on the battlefield - rare is the time we get within attack distance, and with player count even both sides, Marines - locked into first-person perspective and rocking classic weaponry of Pulse Rifles, pistols and shotguns (though customisable and upgradable load-outs are on offer) - have the advantage. A definite need then for the Aliens to work as a team.
The three Xeno types on show, standard Soldier, the long reaching Spitter and pouncing Lurker, offer three distinct approaches, each with their own power move finisher. A colleague also finds a hibernating Boiler, a deformed class of critter that survived the blast from the movie's climax on one level, which explodes when killed. There's definitely suggestion that there's more variations to be revealed, but are being kept as secret for the campaign's story.
Knowledge of map layout plays as much into the Marine strategy as the bugs. During Escape, which sees your squad shoot their way through multiple areas on the way to the evac point, cliff points and containers offer perfect sniper nests and launch locations for the Xenos: entering each area as a Marine with those spots covered immediately with aiming reticules is of huge benefit. The smarter the Marines get, the sneakier the Aliens have to be.
It's impossible to draw a definite opinion on these modes given our brief time with them. Alien control feels fiddly, not as swift as you'd think, and (perhaps as a result) the Marines definitely have the advantage in these early matches.
The campaign beats are similar to Cameron's opening, post-landing. Sweeps in and around an eerily quiet Hadley's Hope, and a silent patrol to the command centre, with unknown blips spiking the motion tracker (rightly a separate device that your current weapon needs swopped out for - locking it to the HUD would have been a travesty). Nods to the film, with voice-recordings from Newt's mother, as well as a pair of near-spent sentry guns, are discovered early.
Soon enough we're overrun by creatures, spilling in to the command centre through a rip in the roof. Cue a retrieval run to the sentry guns and using one to chew through attackers when placed back in the operations room.
The movement of the Aliens seems slow, our pursuers almost too eager to set themselves in front of our gun muzzles. The unnaturalness is, in itself, alien: Alien 3 aside, we've never seen an Alien moving on-screen for more than a few seconds. The quick edits and glancing shots of cinema never giving anyone a true template on which to base the digital versions of the insectoid nightmare.
An easy introduction only? It's a theory that arises later when we encounter the original Giger-version of the Alien (movie fact: the head dome design was changed for Cameron's flick as the original's was too easily prone to breaking).
In a dark dank room, this singular threat moves like the devil. Body whipping away from our torchlight only to charge screaming at us from behind. It's the first time that we feel properly on edge and we're turned into a Hudson-like wreck as we sweep torchlight into shadow fearfully, There's hope then, that the game has the ability to surprise yet.
Our arrival planet side isn't as planned, though the reasons remain a mystery during the demo, which opens on the planet's surface, the burning wreckage of ship(s) strewn across the landscape. Something obviously going wrong while in the inky black above.
The squad splits between jostling, bickering. Character relationships outlined in one liners spat between soldiers. As we spot another Bishop model amongst our crew, we start guessing who's due for the chop during our time on the planet, and in what order.
Hadley's Hope, surprisingly intact despite the processing station going nuclear at the movie's climax (the smoking shards spotted in the distance), our only refuge and chance for calling in a rescue party. How much of the game is spent there is a complete unknown.
Whether Colonial Marines will shift from familiar settings, or even interweave with story elements seen in this year's Prometheus, are questions we're eager to have answers for. The developers mention their talks with Ridley Scott during the game's origins, and there's a particular phrasing to their dismissal to questions of Engineer presence - though it may be we're reading too much into it.
Visually the game's starting to show its age even before release. The extended development time excuses some of the rough edges. The tech within the game's in keeping with the setting, but the look currently doesn't match the best we've seen this year.
Complete transparency: we want this experience to be completely badass. To be fair, who wouldn't? We hope it lives up to its lineage when it releases next year. Let's hope it does come to that.
- System:PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360
- Developer:Gearbox Software, TimeGate Studios
- Offline players:1-2
- Online players:1-12
- Age limit:From 18 years
- Release date:12 February 2013
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